Monday, December 29, 2014

The First All-Charter District

As news continues to come out of York, PA about plans to hand the entire school district over to a for-profit charter company, you'll see the prospect referred to as making York the "first in Pennsylvania" and "the only one in the country." That's because, as one of my readers reminded me, we have in fact tried this before.

Muskegon Heights, Michigan, owns the distinction of first all-charter district in the nation. Muskegon Heights is a city of about 10,000 located on the western side of Michigan; the nearest large city is Grand Rapids. Its school district was handed over to emergency manager Donald Weatherspoon who in July of 2012 hired Mosaica to operate the district's four buildings because, with $16 million in debt, the school district would not be able to open in the fall.

At age 70, Weatherspoon is not your typical education wunderkind. He grew up with eight siblings in a family with ties to the underground railroad. His resume is long and varied-- college football star, semi-pro player, assistant to director of department of corrections, deputy director of department of commerce, police officer in California, and, somewhere in there, assistant state superintendent of schools. And that's just a sampling. But Gov. Rick Snyder sent him to Muskegon Heights, he landed hard, laying off the entire staff and privatizing the district.

By the end of its first year, documents obtained by Michigan Live (a news outlet that covered this story pretty regularly and thoroughly, and whose reporting I leaned on heavily to produce this post), showed the relationship was already testy. Weatherspoon's expectations were plenty reformy-- one of his objections was that Mosaica had not, in one year, closed up the three-to-five year achievement gaps in the high school students. Weatherspoon told Mosaica that their progress was "far less than satisfactory" and basically told them if they didn't shape up they would be shown the door.

The door was easy to find because so many teachers were walking out of it. Mosaica's mostly-new mostly-young staff experienced hefty turnover; within the first three months of Mosaica's operation, twenty of their eighty new hires quit.  Within a year, just one teacher was left at the high school from the "old" staff, and she left for a job in Grand Rapids. Mosaica president Gene Edelman said, "We hired the best teachers we could find but some people were just not expecting how tough it's going to be." Regional Mosaica chief Alena Zachery-Ross said that turnover was higher than they had planned, saying that first it was the disciplinary challenge of low-income inner city kids, and later it was the low pay ($35K base with 10K benefits).

Teachers who left cited a lack of clear discipline policies, resources and supplies, and work expectations. Many were so frustrated that they quit without another job lined up. Meanwhile, students achievement was in the pits and attendance was in freefall. Enrollment dropped steadily as students looked to escape the chaos, and lower enrollment means less money form the state.

By the fall of 2013, Donald Weatherspoon had resigned his post in Muskegon Heights to move on to do some financial slashing in Pontiac. He was replaced by his brother-- Gregory Weatherspoon. A few months later, Mosaica was looking for the door on their own.

In spring of 2014, it was announced that the charter board for Muskegon Heights and Mosaic had decided to part ways. Why did Mosaica walk away from this "historic opportunity"?

"They came here to do a service for the children," Weatherspoon said. "They got the job done, but it didn't fit their financial model... The profit just simply wasn't there."

I will give Mosaic credit for one thing-- as things fell apart financially in the last year, they waived their one million dollar management fee. But they also arranged to get out of the final three years of their contract. As always, the charter commitment to education lasts only as long as the money is coming in.

What has happened this year in Muskegon Heights? Well, the academy board (the charter board that operates the system now) closed a building and reconfigured the remaining students. They have taken steps to get enrollment back up. They hired a superintendent of their own and instead of farming out the entire district function,  hired an outside staffing agency to handle personnel. They started the year with most of the same personnel they finished last year with. As on objective measure, the number of news stories on the general topic of "What the hell is going on over there" has dropped dramatically.

So what are the two takeaways from the Story of Muskegon Heights? What can York schools learn about Life Under a For Profit Charter Chain?

First, Mosaica didn't know what the hell they were doing. There are vague hints of protestations that they couldn't be expected to fully staff and supply a system so quickly, but that's exactly what they said they could do. They failed to recruit an adequate staff, and then they failed to retain them. They failed to provide the teaching supplies needed for the setting, and they failed to establish an environment of order and safety in the schools. The only thing Mosaica knew how to do was crunch numbers and manage cash flow (and that they did in ways that damaged every other part of their mission).

Second, they brought no commitment, no ties, no roots, no intention of fighting to the end. They came to make money. When they couldn't make money, they left.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that making money is inherently evil, a dirty motivation from the dark side of the soul. What Mosaica and other profitable charters (which include both those explicitly for-profit and the non-profits that are pocketing profits personally) do is perfectly normal, natural and rational for a business. It is normal and correct for a business that can't make money to close up shop.

And that is why school and business do not mix. A public school is a long-term commitment that stretches across the generations. It is a promise that a community makes to its children, past, present and future. That is not a reasonable expectation for a business, but it is the only acceptable expectation for a public school system.

Muskegon Heights was an historic first, but not one that the charter biz talks about much because it's not a success story. Instead, it highlights all the reasons that handing over public schools to private business interests is a lousy idea.


  1. If the idea of instituting charters is to provide choice, turning a whole district over to a charter makes no sense because it doesn't do that. And if the problem is financial hardship, why would anyone think a for-profit charter could somehow do a better job using the same resources? It seems like the state is just abdicating responsibility, saying "We don't know what to do about this and don't want to try. Let somebody else try to deal with it."

  2. The entire Inkster, MI, school district was turned over to Edison Schools back in 2001. I'm not sure if they were technically all charter schools, but the entire district was turned over to a private manager. Here's a right-wing commentary cheering it. Actually, needless to say, it was a flop. The "reform" mindset so controls the public discourse that the failure has been conveniently forgotten.

  3. Highland Park, MI, has a public school district run entirely by charters, mostly Leona Group.